The Brainy Benefits of Bedtime Stories

This cozy ritual does more than prepare your child for sleep.

Bedtime stories have long been known to foster parent-child bonds and prepare children for sleep. But lately researchers have attached other powers to this nighttime routine. They say that while you and your little one are sailing with Max to the land of the Wild Things or sampling green eggs with Sam, you're actually boosting your child's brain development.

"Neural research shows that when parents and caregivers interact verbally with children—which includes reading to them—kids learn a great deal more than we ever thought possible," says G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D., chief of the child development and behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, MD. These gains range from improved logic skills to lower stress levels. But perhaps the most profound benefit discovered in recent years is the way bedtime stories can rewire children's brains to quicken their mastery of language.

"There's a clear indication of a neurological difference between kids who have been regularly read to and kids who have not," Dr. Lyon says. The good news is that these discrepancies don't have to be permanent. In NICHD studies under way at Yale University in New Haven, CT, and the University of Texas in Austin, researchers have found that electronic images of the brains of children considered poor readers show little activity in the verbal-processing areas. But after the researchers spent one to two hours a day for eight weeks reading to the poor readers and performing other literacy exercises with them, their brain activity had changed to look like that of the good readers.

Here's how the rewiring works: When you read Margaret Wise Brown's classic bedtime story Goodnight Moon to your baby, exaggerating the oo sound in moon and drawing out the word hush, you're stimulating connections in the part of her brain that handles language sounds (the auditory cortex). In English, there are 44 of these sounds, called phonemes, ranging from ee to ss. The more frequently a baby hears these sounds, the faster she becomes at processing them. Then, when she's a toddler trying to learn language, she'll more easily be able to hear the difference between, say, the words tall and doll. As a grade-schooler learning to read, she'll be more adept at sounding out unfamiliar words on the page.

"To break down unknown words into pieces, you have to first know the pieces," Dr. Lyon explains. "When kids hear the word cat, for example, they usually hear it folded up as one sound (cat) instead of three (c-a-t)," he says. "But when asked to say cat without the c, thus deleting the cuh sound to make at, they'll more easily understand that words are made up of individual sounds." Reading rhyming books to kids is one way to help them practice this skill.

Building an Inner Dictionary

To enhance a child's language skills even more, parents can use storytime as a stepping stone for conversation, says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at Chicago Medical School and author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. For instance, if a mother points to Curious George's baseball cap and asks her child, "Do you have a hat like that?" she's offering him practice in using language correctly.

However, Dr. Eliot cautions parents not to continually correct their child's speech errors. "My own toddler is always saying him's, as in 'That's him's hat,'" she says. "But I don't say, 'No, you should say his hat,' because I don't want to discourage him. Instead I just model the proper speech by repeating his sentence correctly: 'Yes! It is his hat!'"

In time, reading with a child will expand her vocabulary even more than just talking with her will. That's because books can introduce kids to ideas and objects—such as porridge or kangaroos—that are out of their direct environment and therefore not a part of their daily conversation. Look for stories that contain particularly rich or colorful language, like the works of Caldecott-winner William Steig, who often drops four-star words such as discombobulated and sinuous into his books.

"One More Time!"

This phrase is known far and wide to be a child's transparent effort to delay bedtime. But what kids—and parents—may not know is that reading a book repeatedly can help a child develop his logic skills.

The first time children hear a book, they don't catch everything, says Virginia Walter, Ph.D., associate professor in the graduate school of education and information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. But as they hear it again and again, they start to notice patterns and sequences, realizing that if one page says, "Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?" the next page will tell brown bear's response: "I see a red bird looking at me."

They'll also learn to predict what will happen next based on their prior knowledge ("Uh oh! The wolf wants to blow the house down!"). Later, these lessons in recognizing patterns, understanding sequences, and predicting outcomes will help children in other areas, from math and science to music and writing. And reading aloud doesn't need to stop once kids can read on their own; in fact, that's when they develop reading comprehension skills, Dr. Walter says. To practice, ask a child what she thinks will happen next or how she would end a story differently.

Experts suggest that parents continue the tradition even into the teenage years. By choosing books that are slightly above a teen's skill level, you'll continue to expose her to new words to add to her vocabulary. What's more, reading aloud can provide fodder for family conversation. "It's so much easier to talk about a tough issue outside the context of your immediate life," Dr. Walter explains. "If the issue then comes up in personal life, you can say, 'Remember what we talked about?'" For talking to adolescents about death, she suggests reading Katherine Patterson's classic Bridge to Terabithia; likewise, the Little House on the Prairie books offer families the opportunity to discuss racism.

Soothing Snuggles

To best confer reading's cognitive benefits, a child's experiences with books should be enjoyable, says Peter Gorski, M.D., chair of the early childhood committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "More than anything, you want him to associate reading with emotional warmth and fun," he says.

When kids are cozy and comfortable, reading aloud to them can even lower their stress levels. When a child experiences any strain—such as being bullied or starting a new school—his brain tries to protect him by producing the hormone cortisol, which activates the body's "fight or flight" response. In small doses, cortisol can actually help kids handle normal stress. In larger amounts, however, it can block learning.

While there have been no scientific studies on how bedtime stories affect children with spiked cortisol levels, neuroscientists say it stands to reason that being read a familiar book while snuggling close to a parent can comfort a child, thus lowering his cortisol levels to help him concentrate better. To enhance the calming nature of storytime at your house, cuddle up with your child in a comfortable place, with his favorite blankets and stuffed animals nearby.

"Relax and just enjoy being with your child," Dr. Gorski says. "Just think of what that close time you're spending together will do for your own cortisol levels!"

Best Books For Bedtime

These stories stand out for meeting both the language and emotional needs of their target age group, according to the Quicklist Consulting Committee, a subset of the American Library Association in Chicago.

Birth to 3

  • Big Fat Hen by Keith Baker (Harcourt)
  • The Everything Book by Denise Fleming (Henry Holt)
  • "More, More, More," Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams (William Morrow)
  • Where's Spot? by Eric Hill (Putnam)

4 to 7

  • Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel (HarperCollins)
  • Good Night, Good Knight by Shelley Moore Thomas (Dutton)
  • Pass the Celery, Ellery! by Jeffrey Fisher Gaga (Stewart Tabori & Chang)
  • The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (Viking)

8 to 12

  • Grandfather's Journey by Allen Say (Walter Lorraine)
  • More Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron (Knopf)
  • A Poke in the I by Paul Janeczko (Candlewick)
  • Ramona Quimby, Age 8 , Age 8 by Beverly Cleary (William Morrow)
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